Muhammad vs. Ali

Meet Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Born in Somalia in 1969, she was subjected to genital mutilation at age 5—among other physical abuse—and, later on, forced into an arranged marriage to a distant cousin. That is, until she escaped to the Netherlands in 1992, where she worked various jobs that eventually led to a position in the Dutch parliament and as a campaigner for women’s rights—particularly within Islam, her religion of birth that she would ultimately renounce.

In 2004, she penned the screenplay for Submission, a short film criticizing the treatment of women in Muslim culture. The movie’s director, Theo van Gogh, was subject to an especially harsh critique in the form of being murdered in the street by a member of a Dutch terrorist organization called the Hofstad Network. What is more, attached to the knife that killed van Gogh was a note to Hirsi Ali, informing her that she was the next person on Hofstad’s hit list.

As a result, Hirsi Ali briefly went into hiding, before resuming her work as an advocate for the empowerment of women, including by founding the AHA Foundation in 2007, “to help protect and defend the rights of women in the West from oppression justified by religion and culture.”

For these efforts, Hirsi Ali was to be given an honorary degree from Brandeis University next month. However, last week the distinguished Waltham, Mass., institution opted to un-invite her from its commencement exercises, following on-campus protests by students, faculty and others.

What was their grievance? It was that this woman, who had spent the balance of her adolescence being tortured by practices ordained and justified by a particular wing of Islam, has had a few disparaging things to say about Islam.

Case in point: In a now-infamous 2007 interview in Reason Magazine, Hirsi Ali asserted, “I think that we [in the West] are at war with Islam,” that the religion is inherently violent and extreme, and the only way for Islam to “mutate into something peaceful” is for it to be “defeated.” In a separate interview in the same year, she called Islam “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death.”

Naturally, the wide dissemination of these contentions led many to tar Hirsi Ali as hateful, bigoted, Islamophobic and all the rest. Petitions were circulated across the campus, demanding the school rethink its decision to honor Hirsi Ali.

Last Tuesday, it did exactly that. I greatly wish that it hadn’t.

In examining this whole brouhaha, we probably need not expend much time on the question of rights. To wit: No one has the “right” to an honorary degree from Brandeis or any other great American university. An institution of higher learning has the full freedom to make such decisions however it deems fit.

What happened here, however, is that Brandeis specifically chose Hirsi Ali for the privilege of addressing its graduating class, only to then rescind the invitation when it became clear that too many members of the Brandeis community were afraid to hear what she might have had to say.

I say “afraid” because that’s what they were. They couldn’t handle facing an opinion about the world around them with which they do not agree—a sentiment that might force them to turn their brains on and exercise some critical thinking. And a university is no place for that.

A highly prudent question in this case is whether Brandeis was aware of Hirsi Ali’s more inflammatory statements when it first tapped her as an honoree. In an official statement, the school says it was not—that the administration regards her as “a compelling public figure and advocate for women’s rights,” but that it “cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values,” adding, “we regret that we were not aware of these statements earlier.”

One would like to be able to take Brandeis’s powers-that-be at their word—namely, to accept that Hirsi Ali’s stridently anti-Islam comments came as a surprise. However, in order to swallow this, one would necessarily need to believe that no one on this degree-granting committee thought to peruse Wikipedia or Google or any other source of basic biographical information on a woman whom this university evidently valued enough to bestow such a distinction in the first place.

Does this sound plausible to you? If conferring an honorary degree truly is “akin to affirming the body of a recipient’s work,” as the New York Times put it, why did Brandeis perform such apparently shoddy research on this particular would-be recipient?

No, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to conclude the administration knew that it was making a gamble—an admirable one, in my view—and then when it realized it had a small mutiny on its hands, the school panicked and bowed to the will of the mob.

Is this what constitutes “Brandeis University’s core values” nowadays? I dearly hope not.